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"safer Streets" For The Blind Urged

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted from Gulf Daily News, October 14, 2004.

A call has gone out to make Bahrain's streets safer for blind pedestrians. It coincides with White Cane Safety Day, which is being marked around the globe today.

Campaigners for the blind are using the occasion to demand better facilities to help them navigate Bahrain's streets.

They say the most urgent requirement is traffic lights that beep when it is time to cross the road.

"The authorities are not helping us by pushing for better facilities," said Bahrain-Saudi Institute for the Blind director Abdulwahid Al Khayat.

"In developed countries like Europe, they have many facilities to help disabled people cross the road.

"Here they say disabled people are an important pillar of society, but I have yet to know of anything to help them in the street or in public places.

"The blind are really suffering while walking in the street, with a stick or not, because there are no sounds coming out from the traffic lights alerting them when to cross and when not to."

According to Mr. Al Khayat, there are just two sets of traffic lights in Bahrain which beep when it is time to cross the road.

They are located at Bab Al Bahrain and in Gudaibiya.

"Are these the only two places that blind people visit?" he asked.

Mr. Al Khayat also said there are no special pavements for blind people.

In Europe, some streets also have bumps in the pavement to warn blind people that they are close to a main road.

In addition, he wants to see braille numbers in elevators so blind people know which floor they are choosing.

Now he thinks municipal councillors should push for such measures to be included by the government at new towns under development, as well as existing facilities being updated.

Although White Cane Safety Day will be marked around the world today, activities will not take place in Bahrain until tomorrow because it clashes with the start of Ramadan.

It will be marked with an assembly at the institute tomorrow morning, while a special festival will take place by the end of the month to educate people on how to use white canes properly.

"We are also planning to raise awareness among blind people about the right way to use the stick--something which needs a lot of practice and patience," said Mr. Al Khayat.

"Blind adolescents are mainly being targeted ensuring they are capable of walking with the stick, something that many blind people have problems mastering because they are not being properly trained on using it."

He also stressed there is a huge difference between caring for the blind and smothering them.

"It should always be the blind person who holds on to the person leading him or her, not the other way round," he said.

"The person guiding should always be a step ahead because it allows the blind person to get an idea of their surroundings--such as whether there are slopes or steps.

"Sighted people should also not offer help to a blind person walking on the street unless help is requested or if the person is in obvious distress."

October 15 was proclaimed White Cane Safety Day by U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 after a joint resolution was passed by Congress.

Blind people have been using canes for centuries, but it was not until after the First World War that a British photographer named James Biggs was blinded in an accident and painted his cane white.

Canes have advanced enormously since they were first used by blind people to aid mobility.

These days people can even purchase electronic canes to help them get around.

"The white electronic sticks have helped the blind get independence they need to be successful and never worry about facing any extra problems--other than being blind," said Mr. Al Khayat.

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